LAWSON – If you didn’t hear about the recent tornado that struck the town of Lawson, killing six and leaving residents without power and/or lines of communication for three days, don’t worry; it was only a drill.
But that drill yielded a valuable opportunity for a new Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Disaster Relief (DR) unit, in cooperation with local law enforcement, county emergency management personnel, and the Red Cross.
The new unit is a command/communication unit. It may be housed in a 25-year-old AirStream camper, but it features state-of-the-art and very powerful communication equipment that can mean all the difference after a major disaster.
For example, when that fictional tornado knocked out all the cell towers and phone lines, the communication trailer was able to set up ham radio repeaters and a small-scale telephone network within two hours. They can communicate with law enforcement entities down the block or across the country and, in extreme cases, with people around the world.
Before the exercise, DR volunteers were chatting with people in California, New York and Japan. In a pinch, they can also send and receive e-mail through ham radio. In addition to providing a communication hub, it allows the incident commanders on site during a disaster a base of operations. Soon, Jerry Palmer, director of missions, Heartland Baptist Association, hopes to have the trailer outfitted with satellite Internet, which would allow the trailer to get online anywhere in the world and set up its own two square-mile wireless Internet hub.
“We learned a lot today,” said Palmer. “I wanted to see where the holes were, and we did that.”
A former radio station engineer, Palmer is the blue hat (leader) of the communication/command unit, which is a perfect fit. Heartland Association’s communication unit is one of only 14 “comm/comm” units nationwide.
“Up until now, if you didn’t have cell phone coverage, you were in trouble,” he said. “This is a huge advance for us.”
Patrick Ryan, director of missions for Carroll-Saline Association and a ham radio operator, has seen the need for alternate communication capabilities first hand.
“Communication is one of those things that is very easy to take for granted,” he said. “But everything we do revolves around communication.”
The hypothetical tornado, while devastating to the town of Lawson, would still be a relatively small-scale disaster. It’s during a large-scale event like Hurricane Katrina or a potential earthquake along the New Madrid fault line that communication becomes even more vital.
“In New Orleans after Katrina, the only way to communicate was to string a wire between two trees and use that as your antenna,” Ryan said. “Even local law enforcement radio was down. This gives DR not only the ability to communicate within our teams, but also with the Baptist Building in Jefferson City and North American Mission Board (NAMB) in Georgia.”
Palmer said DR organizers are looking for ham radio operators to train on the equipment and train for future disaster relief call-outs. In addition, future DR training may include ham radio training and licensing. For more information, contact Rick Seaton, MBC disaster relief coordinator, at 1-800-736-6227.
BRIAN KOONCE/staff writer